Songs for the Apocalypse
David Byrne, Tom Waits, Bill Haley, David Bowie

David Byrne, Tom Waits, Bill Haley, David Bowie. Photos: Getty Images

Every Wednesday until the world ends, Douglas Wolk explores the people, places and coincidences that tie disparate musicians together. 

“It’s after the end of the world — don’t you know that yet?” There are plenty of songs anticipating the apocalypse, from David Bowie‘s “Five Years” to Prince’s “1999″ to Young Marble Giants‘ “Final Day” (which I discussed here a few months ago) and they’re timely again at the moment, since the end of the Mayan Long Count calendar is supposedly this Friday. But the refrain that June Tyson of Sun Ra‘s Arkestra chants below (in a clip from the 1974 movie Space is the Place) belongs to a curious strain of songs that suggest that the world has in fact already ended.

Decades before R.E.M.‘s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It,” Skeeter Davis had an enormous crossover hit with 1963′s “The End of the World” — it went high up on not only the pop and country charts but the R&B chart. Davis had a long, fascinating career, beginning with the Davis Sisters (who recorded the country classic “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know” in 1953) and continuing through a 1985 collaboration with NRBQ (whose bassist, Joey Spampinato, she subsequently married), but this song — in which she’s surprised that the rest of the world seems to be surviving after someone’s broken up with her — became her signature.

One of the centerpieces of the American rock trio Shellac‘s live shows for the past few years has been “The End of Radio,” which turned up in recorded form on 2007′s Excellent Italian Greyhound. (A long, knockout live performance from last year’s Primavera Sound festival is below.) It’s a sort of punk rock equivalent of David Markson’s novel Wittgenstein’s Mistress: the last person on Earth, live on the air, howling fragmentary pleas to a nonexistent audience, alluding to bits of the culture that his memory alone is preserving.

A similar kind of apocalypse has arrived in David Bowie‘s “Panic in Detroit,” from 1973. At first, it’s a song about a modish revolutionary who outlives his group, then kills himself. But the death of the Ché lookalike the narrator describes — more broadly, the death of the leftist revolutionary spirit of a few years earlier — is also the end of everything: money is meaningless, cars are permanently stalled on the streets, there are no airplanes in the sky, “a trickle of strangers were all that were left alive.” Here’s a live 1976 performance.

There’s always someone who’s going to make the most of being a final survivor, though –like Bill Haley. When Haley and the Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock” came out in 1945, it was actually a B-side; the A-side was a novelty song that imagined the most fun possible outcome to living through an atomic holocaust. Ladies and gentlemen, “Thirteen Women (And Only One Man In Town).”

Tom Waits‘ 1992 song “Earth Died Screaming” puts a slightly more romantic twist on Haley’s love-among-the-ashes scenario, although it also owes a bit more to the Scriptural Apocalypse (“The lion has three heads/And someone will eat the skin that he sheds”) and to Bob Dylan‘s nursery-rhyme-inspired apocalyptic blues “Cat’s in the Well” (“Rudy’s on the midway/And Jacob’s in the hole”).

There is, of course, the possibility that “the end of the world” just means a grand transformation — that, in fact, the world as we know it turns into something more beautiful or interesting. Talking Heads‘ final album, 1988′s Naked, features a clever inside-out take on that idea: “(Nothing but) Flowers” imagines a world with its natural beauty restored (essentially Joni Mitchell‘s “Big Yellow Taxi” in reverse — they unpaved the parking lot and put up a paradise), but David Byrne‘s character misses the glories of the landscape humanity had constructed.

One of the most beautiful and most chilling post-apocalyptic songs starts by anticipating the end of the world, then sketches out a “(Nothing but) Flowers”-like return to nature, but without people. Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 end their 1994 album Strangers from the Universe with “Noble Experiment,” set to the unnerving instrument the Optigan — an early-’70s organ that played full-band arrangements from optical discs that turned scratchy and wobbly over time. “Time has come now to stop being human/Time to find a new creature to be,” Anne Eickelberg murmurs. She actually makes that sound like a pretty good thing.

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